The Science of Unplugging: is it really a problem?


Many of us feel our devices sometime get in the way of our lives  and research shows that tech use is steadily on the rise.

But instead of complaining about how ‘the kids’ are spending their time these days I decided to look at the latest research that sheds light on our relationship with our screens.  I found that at least for some people, screen time is causing more stress, anxiety, loneliness, and addiction.

The most unfortunate thing about tech is that the exposure rate is 100%.   Meaning with other potentially problematic substances like cigarettes or cocaine, many people who would become addicted simply avoid the substance in the first place.  With tech however, anyone that has predisposition to a tech disorder, will almost certainly develop that disorder since they will have to use it to participate in daily life.

When you complain about what the ‘kids’ are doing, you risk looking like this.

Neuroscience of Smartphone use

I found that there there are physiological mechanisms in place that make us susceptible to becoming addicted or forming strong habits around our devices.   One MIT professor, Sherry Turkle,  explains that we were made to be hunters and gatherers and that means our brains love to find stuff–it does not matter if it is food or a notification–the brain gets high off of it.

  • The Text Message Dopamine hit- Every time an individual responds to the ping of an instant message or text message, a small amount of dopamine is secreted in the brain as a reward, similar to being under the influence of drugs (Dokoupil, 2012).
  • “The computer is like electronic cocaine” –Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA
  • “Our brains are wired for finding immediate reward.”-Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA
  • The Phantom Vibrations – 89 percent of the undergrads have felt phantom vibrations of their phone.  This doesn’t seem to be a health scare but it is more evidence that our screen time is having an effect on the wiring of our brain.  (study)

How much do we use?

It is hard to say how much tech use is too much from stats alone.  3,700 texts a month sounds ridiculously high but perhaps that is the new norm.  But some studies reveal that people themselves ‘feel addicted’ and others studies confirm that cellphone usage often resembles an addiction.  These types of studies coupled with the notion that our brains are wired to become hooked, convinces me that there is a real problem with screen time for at least some people and it is a problem that is becoming more and more common.

  • 13 % addicted to their phone – University of Derby did and their study found that 13 percent of those surveyed are addicted to their phones — that’s one in eight people (study)
  • 91% have device within reach 24×7 (article)
  • People more likely to reach for phone than spouse – First thing in the morning,couples are more likely to reach for their cellphone than their spouse (report)
  • More of us are constantly checking our phone — The number of people who open apps 60 times or more a day is growing at more than five times the rate of regular users (report)
  • Tech addiction added to DSM-V – Internet Gaming Addiction was included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a new condition for further study
  • 1 in 10 iPhone users feel addicted – Stanford study found that one in 10 iPhone users feels “fully addicted” (article)
  • Average person sends/reads 400 texts/month- The average person, regardless of age, sends or receives about 400 texts a month, four times the 2007 number(article).
  • Average teen sends/receives 3,700 texts a month, double the 2007 figure (article).

New emotional demands of the connected age

Being connected all the time has it benefits but it also brings new social pressures.  Being available all time can cause stress, feelings of guilt, and other symptoms of depression.

  •  Communication overload”–Smartphone users express feelings of guilt, resentment, and stress when attempting to answer and decipher important from less important messages–a phenomenon labeled ‘communication overload’.
    Thomée, Dellve, Härenstam, and Hagberg (2010)
  • Availability demands linked to symptoms of depression- Reseachers found a positive association between availability demands and current stress and symptoms of depression among men and all of the mental health variables among the women (study)

Unhealthy relationship with the phone

One way to determine if someone is too attached to their phone is to observe their behavior when they don’t have access to it.  Studies find that many students basically ‘freak out’, to use a technical term, when they can’t access  their phone.

  • Separation anxiety with the phone – Researchers at CSU, Dominguez found that many students become anxious when they are without their phones. (study)
  • Smartphone usage linked to loneliness in young people-  Researchers found cell phone use among young people found more use related to lower feelings of
    loneliness, suggesting higher dependency on the devices (study).
  • Students agitated and anxious when unable to text – Researchers found participants felt ‘‘annoyed,’’ ‘‘anxious,’’ and ‘‘agitated’’ when unable to textthose they felt close to (study).
  • Smartphone usage and anxiety linked – researcher found through survey research that cell phone use was positively related to anxiety among college students(study)
  • Texing may be a crutch – Reid and Reid discovered that anxious participants
    preferred text messaging over other methods of communication, which mediated the effects of anxiety (study)

Tech addiction recognized as a disorder 

One way to get some perspective on psychological issues is to look at what other countries are doing.  While in the US we are still debating about how dangerous smartphone/internet usage can be, other countries have already taken dramatic steps to curb tech usage.

  • China, Taiwan, and Korea already treat tech addiction – These countries have began treating problematic Web use as a grave national health crisis.
  • South Korea puts curfew on internet games – In 2011, the government passed the “Shutdown Law,” which prevents children under the age of 16 from accessing gaming websites between midnight and 6 a.m. (article)
  • Tech addiction included in DSM-V – In 2013 the American Psychiatric Association included Internet Gaming Addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a new condition for further study

Author:  Zack Prager, founder of Ransomly.,  @zackPrager

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